Christopher Parker attempts to break up a double play by sliding into second base when he was on the Comets baseball team.

Christopher Parker, a 2000 graduate of Halifax County High School who grew up on a tobacco farm in Nathalie, was a four-sport athlete who gravitated to the game of baseball.

It was his love for sports that led him into his role as the head of the second largest athletic association in the United States. Parker is the president and CEO of the National Junior College Athletic Association. He’s responsible for the oversight of the association and leading the 512 member colleges of the group.

While attending Halifax County High School, Parker obtained an associate’s degree from Southside Virginia Community College while attending governor’s school. After high school Parker attended Hampden Sydney and finished his undergraduate degree with a bachelor’s in science and human nutrition food and exercise with minors in biology and Spanish from Virginia Tech.

He earned a master’s degree from Virginia Commonwealth University in sports leadership, then went on to obtain his doctorate and educational specialist degree from Liberty University in educational leadership. Parker also obtained postgraduate degrees from Duke University in not-for-profit leadership and Longwood University in online instruction.

While attending VCU for his master’s degree Parker was a graduate assistant baseball coach. When he was at VCU, Patrick Henry Community College reached out to him about being a part of their attempt to become the first community college in Virginia to join the NJCAA. Parker was hired by PHCC as athletic director as well as baseball coach and was tasked to help the school become a member of the NJCAA.

Parker also served as the dean of academics, vice president and executive director while at PHCC. He helped the Martinsville community college become a member of the NJCAA, which entails establishing the parameters of the membership, the sports the school wants to participate in, who the athletic director will be and the facilities at the school.

Parker’s first involvement with the NJCAA in an administrative position was when he began serving as the assistant regional director and then the regional director. The NJCAA has 24 regions and each region has two regional directors and two assistant regional directors. While Parker served in these positions he was able to get involved and to provide leadership at the regional level for sports for the NJCAA.

Parker then left PHCC to become the vice president at Pfeiffer University. It was there that Parker learned that the president and CEO at the NJCAA was retiring. Parker applied for the position, and after a long and tedious process, was offered the job.

That was nearly three years ago.

Since then Parker has made many strides to help grow the NJCAA as well as help educate people about what they have to offer.

Many people around the country do not know the opportunities that a junior college presents to student athletes. The NJCAA has long provided student athletes a place to play the sports they love for a variety of reasons.

“Our motto at the NJCAA is ‘Opportunities start here,’ it doesn’t matter why you attend a two-year college. It may be you want to stay at home and save money, it may be you need to get bigger, faster, stronger. It may be you need some academic support, but junior college sports are pretty phenomenal when you look at it,” Parker said.

The NJCAA has three divisions. In Division 1, a student can be offered a scholarship for almost anything including room, board, books and tuition. Division 2 is a scholarship for books and tuition, and Division 3 has no scholarships.

Parker explains that per capita, there are more Major League Baseball draft picks that come from junior colleges than there are from high schools and four-year colleges.

Big names such as Roger Clemens, Albert Pujols, Bryce Harper, Bubba Watson, Cheryl Swoopes and Tyreek Hill all got their starts at the two-year level for some reason or another.

The basketball coaching staff at Texas Tech University — the national runners up in 2019 — all began their coaching careers in the NJCAA. They also brought in several players who began their college careers at the junior college level. Texas A&M head coach Buzz Williams and former Michigan and Cleveland Cavaliers head coach John Beilein also began their coaching careers at junior colleges in the NJCAA.

Another statistic Parker gives is that 80% of the number three, four and five batters in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Southeastern Conference (SEC) and the Big 12 all started in the NJCAA.

“You look at the opportunities to play Division 1 baseball, there are only so many scholarships and if you go NJCAA you may have a full ride out of pocket zero dollars and you are getting drafted or getting to sign a D1 offer and end up saving a lot of money,” Parker said.

Many college coaches today are recruiting heavily at the junior college level and particularly from the NJCAA. Parker says that these coaches are recruiting so heavily into the NJCAA because they are trying to get the mentality and experience level higher on their teams. If someone brings in an established NJCAA student athlete that has two years of eligibility left they bring an instant spark to the team.

The perfect case for this in Virginia would be Bryce Perkins who recently graduated from the University of Virginia. Perkins began his college career at the Division 1 level at Arizona State University, but a neck injury derailed his future. Perkins recovered from the injury and ended up playing at Arizona Western, a NJCAA school. Perkins excelled, leading his team to the national championship game before losing a close battle. Perkins transferred to UVA and led the Cavaliers to their best two seasons in over a decade, culminating in a win over Virginia Tech and a trip to the Orange Bowl in his senior season.

“It’s all about finding the niche or the fit and that is what the NJCAA does. They let people grow into who they are, who they want to become and who they are destined to be,” Parker said. “The key word is growth, whether that growth is academic, athletic, financial or whatever it may be, the growth is the key and it is a self evaluation,” he added.

Perkins used the NJCAA to gain recognition after a gruesome injury, but there are plenty of other reasons that student athletes use the NJCAA across the country. The hit Netflix show “Last Chance U” has brought those reasons to the forefront. “Last Chance U” is the story of football players who were highly sought after recruits coming out of high school, but for various reasons had to take the junior college route. Some of the players started playing at Division 1 schools and grades or behavior ended up getting them kicked off of those teams. They used the NJCAA as a place to start over and prove that their mistakes were not who they were.

The first two seasons of the show showcased East Mississippi Community College and the next two seasons featured Independence Community College in Kansas. The show became an instant hit, mainly because the coaches at the two schools were very animated and made for great television, but there were several memorable players who were highlighted that rebranded themselves and used the NJCAA to get a fresh start. There were several players who successfully used the NJCAA to transfer to Division 1 schools and a couple has had opportunities to play for NFL teams.

Parker says that “Last Chance U” has been a way to open the door for conversations to take place around junior college athletics. When people approach Parker about the show he says that he is able to segue those conversations about “Last Chance U” into what junior college athletics really means in those areas.

Parker also says different areas of the country have different areas of exposure to junior college athletics. Texas in particular is very aware of the benefit of beginning at the junior college level.

“If you go to Texas, a lot of kids are going to pick that two-year school over a four-year school, there are MLB players coaching them and there are people who are looking after them from top to bottom to make sure they are successful,” Parker said.

In the three short years that Parker took over as president and CEO at the NJCAA he has made several changes that have helped improve its presence in the country. The last two years the NJCAA football and men’s and women’s national championship games have been broadcast live on national television by CBS Sports Network. The NJCAA Foundation was created, which is a separate 501 C3 organization that is there to help student athletes.

Parker has grown the staff from nine to 21 full time employees along with 96 directors around the country. They have increased their revenues and awareness and continued to build off of that so that high school students know that the NJCAA is not a last resort, it can be their first choice.

The NJCAA also is getting ready to launch the NJCAA Digital Network, which Parker says will be more opportunities to get exposure for the association. The digital network will have live and archived games from the different sports, as well as features on the colleges and their student athletes.

Though Parker is leading the second largest athletic association in the country, he doesn’t forget his humble beginnings in Halifax County.

“I am just a small town country boy at heart. Home will always be Halifax County, it doesn’t matter where I am or what I am doing, home will always be Halifax,” he said.

“I owe a lot of gratitude to my parents for instilling the work ethic and determination to be successful and always finish what you started,” Parker added.

There also were several coaches and mentors that Parker thanked for their part in the success that he have had. Coaches Barry Powell, Kenneth Day, Allen Lawter, Freddy Palmore and Todd Trickey were just a few that he named. “There are so many good people at home that played a part in the success in my career both on and off the field. I thank them from the bottom of my heart for everything they did for me.”

Johnathan Kirland is a sports writer for The Gazette-Virginian. Contact him Follow him on Twitter @JohnathanK_GV